Perhaps the least heralded of the Taos Society of Artists, William Herbert “Buck” Dunton both challenged and sold the romanticization of the American Wild West.
After befriending Ernest Blumenschein at New York’s Art Student’s League, the artist headed to Taos in 1912, moving there permanently in 1914.
A founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, Dunton is getting his local due at the Harwood Museum of Art in “William Herbert “Buck” Dunton: A Mainer Goes West” through May 21. Independent curator Michael K. Komanecky and Betsy Fahlman, adjunct curator of American Art at the Phoenix Art Museum, with additional help from Harwood curator Nicole Dial-Kay, organized the exhibition.
In 1915, Dunton helped found the TSA along with Blumenschein, Oscar Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, Bert Phillips and Joseph Henry Sharp.
These artists banded together to promote their paintings of Taos and its surroundings to a national audience. These artists spread the gospel of the romantic West, complete with cowboys on horseback, sweeping landscapes and stunning peaks. These artists also encountered the Native people of Taos Pueblo, as well as the Hispanics who settled the area in 1542.
At the time, many Americans viewed both the landscape and the cultures as exotic. They toured Taos and other parts of the American Southwest as part of a nascent cultural tourism industry.
Born in Augusta, Maine, in 1878, Dunton spent his youth hunting and fishing and devouring the dime-store novels hawking stories of the Wild West.
What he found in Taos initially disappointed him. The Wild West he had so fantasized about was already disappearing.
“I was born too late and came too late,” he wrote. Recalling his own experiences as a cowhand in the late 1890s, he lamented,
“This was a great cattle country a few years ago,” but “Now, there isn’t a steer to be seen.”
After leaving high school at 16, Dunton headed West to work as a cow puncher. He traveled to Montana, Nebraska, Arizona and New Mexico, only to discover he lacked the skills.
“He was so bad, he said he ‘couldn’t rope a sick chicken,’ ” Dial-Kay said.
He returned East, studying art at the Cowles Art School in Boston, where he worked as a publishing company illustrator. Then Blumenschein told him to go to Taos.
“He was there on the ground floor of TSA,” Dial-Kay said. “It’s one of the only landscape school of arts in the U.S.”
Dunton’s works featured the men, women, children, wildlife, and the landscape of Taos – common fare for the Taos Society of Artist members.
But his portrayals of women were different. “Romaldita,” c. 1922, shows an elegant woman riding a horse. With her fist on her hip, she appears strong and independent, sure of herself and her station. She stands as a defiant counterpoint to his rugged cowboys and ranchers.
In “Pastor de Cabras,” (“Herder of Goats”) 1926, he shows a shepherd tending his goats and dog, his face and eyes stern and weary under the weight of the work.
“He looks a little tired and broken,” Dial-Kay said. “But there’s this incredible peace with this boy and the animals he’s caring for.”
Viewers may sense a stirring of discomfort in Dunton’s stunning portrait of his children, c. 1922.
“Again, it strays from that romanticized ideal,” Dial-Kay said. “At the time, he was going through a separation from his wife and you can see the tension in the family.”
Dunton found enough of the old West to stir his artistic imagination. Nathan “Ginger” Dowell worked as a trapper and rancher in Taos Canyon in the 1920s and in the 1930s he built a cabin on the 2,000-acre Six Mile Ranch north of Taos. His portrait of Dowell shows a handsome, physically robust mustachioed man holding a dead coyote in his hand. Dowell was a bounty hunter who earned his reward from ranchers and the federal government for killing animals that preyed on cattle and other livestock.
“McMullin, Guide” was painted a couple of years later c. 1934 and repeats this Western male stereotype.
But toward the end of his life, Dunton became something of a conservationist. In his writings of the 1930s, he disavowed the need to hunt bears, refuting the commonly held belief that bears were dangerous to those who encountered them, recognizing instead their natural inclination to avoid human contact. He fell in love with bears, painting them repeatedly.
The exhibition next moves to the Phoenix Art Museum.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to see this many paintings by Dunton in their lifetime,” Dial-Kay said. “Everyone who has a Dunton does not travel them; they’re such gems. These works are very valuable; they’re such jewels of New Mexico.”